Thursday, December 30, 2010

Happy Celtic New Year

I've probably said this several times before in this blog but St. Mike's is such a remarkably support place. Whether you are a student, faculty member or staff member if you have an idea or project you want to put into practice there are so many people with high levels of expertise who can make things happen. For example putting on the Concert for St. Patrick each year involves over a dozen different people from a variety of different departments who bring their skills and expertise to the project so that it is a success.

Sadly, not all organizations I have been involved with have this same spirit of support, a fact which makes St. Mike's stand out even more. I live in the town of Richmond about 15 miles from St. Mike's and for the past four years my wife Lucie and I have planned, organized and implemented the Celtic New Year event. During that time it has grown to involve almost 30 different performing groups in 9 locations around the town. Over 1000 people attend the event every year and we have donated around $15,000 to local schools and organizations to promote youth Celtic music and dance (that's the Heather Morris Highland Dancers in the photo).

This year we went looking for help to put on the event but were met with a devastating lack of support; the complete opposite to my experiences at St. Mikes. Consequently we had to cancel the event this year. We do hope to somehow find support to reinstate the event in 2012. Happy New Year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Boxing Day

They say you can take the Englishman out of England but you can't take England out of the Englishman. For almost every day of the year I am as American as the next American but for a few days each year I am overcome by my "Englishness". (I promise these self indulgent blog entries will not last long). Boxing day, or St. Stephen's Day is one of those days. December 26th has been known as Boxing Day in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada for over a century or longer depending on which theory of its origin you believe. So yesterday I watched two English Premier League soccer games live on TV. Today Boxing Day is usually spent doing or watching some type of sporting activity or shopping for bargains in the after Christmas sales.

St. Mike's is pretty quiet for the week between Christmas and the New Year but I will probably venture into my office once the current Nor'Easter blows itself out later today. It looks like 5-8 inches which will probably mean I'll have to snowblow the driveway.

I'm using a different text in the Schools and Society course I first taught last semester so I'll need to redo the course before the beginning of the semester later in January. The new book involves the reader much more in thinking about teaching and education in general rather than simply reviewing ideas as in the one I used last semester. It even has a chapter by A.S. Neill, the British educator who brought us the memorable Summerhill school all those years ago and which is still going strong as a model of progressive education.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

The Polar Express is one of my favorite children's Christmas stories because it's about trains and the idea of believing in something. This Christmas I've been asking people if they actually remember believing in Santa Claus or Father Christmas as he was in my childhood. Every person says they can remember believing even giving specific example of things they did.

Father Christmas always put my brother's and my Christmas presents in two pillow cases at the foot of our beds and I can remember so clearly peeking over the covers to see if it was there on Christmas day morning. It always was, of course, and I remember so clearly marvelling at Father Christmas's remarkable abilities. Exactly when I no longer believed I don't remember but it was quite a significant stage in my growth and development. I always remind teachers of young children that it's a good idea when teaching science to remember the conceptual limitations of children who still believe in Santa.

My first electric train set was my best ever Christmas present when I was 8, I think: a Hornby Dublo three rail outfit that grew over successive Christmases and birthdays to cover an 8ft x 4ft table. I remember being mesmerized by the smell of the new toys in their boxes. My brother and I and our dad and uncles spent many an hour building and playing with that train set.
Perhaps this is why even today one of my favorite relaxation activities is to watch old videos of trains on YouTube like this one narrated by John Betjeman, the poet laureate of England for many years. We are indeed products of our childhood. I now live next to the railway line in Richmond and still get a kick out of watching the train go by even if it is no longer pulled by a steam engine. I firmly believe trains are the future of our transport system.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Math Memories and NeighborKeepers

On a personal note I had my Beatles birthday a few days ago; the one in the song that asks "Will you still need me, will you still feed me....". I must admit that I don't feel that old especially when it comes to thinking about math education. It's exciting to think back over the years in terms of different things I've believed or thought about at different times.

There was a time, for example when I didn't think children should be required to remember their addition and multiplication facts; a time when I thought that you just need to help children understand. We now know that the development of memory plays a large part in learning math just as it does in learning how to spell or write good English. Memory, of course, will always be better if it occurs alongside understanding.

I had the last of the three NeighborKeepers Math Mentoring workshops I have developed last Tuesday. They are free and designed to help volunteers who want to teach math to "newcomer" families in the Winooski School District where the need for extra help is significant. Hal Colston , a local social entrepreneur, is the one who is making this all happen and I hope to have the graduate students in my math ed. course work with these families as part of a course assignment next semester. If you would like to become a Math Mentor let me know at;
twhiteford (leave out the space)

I think it's cool that the British Government just designated the Abbey Rd "zebra" crossing as a National Heritage site. It just goes to show that history is always being made.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spirituality and Teaching

As I was reading some of the senior students' licensure portfolios this week and meeting many of them again at an end of semester gathering I couldn't help but compare them with my Schools and Society class students. Admittedly they have grown and learned a lot in the intervening two years but there is something else that makes senior education majors different from sophomore education majors and I think it has to do with the spirituality they have gained from their varied educational experiences at St. Michael's.

One of my colleagues in the Education Department at St. Mike's, Aostre Johnson, is one of countries leading experts on spirituality in education having published many books and manuscripts on the topic. One of the things I find particularly interesting is the way she defines spirituality in a pluralistic sense; in other words, there are many dimensions to the idea of spirituality in addition to the religious interpretation we tend to think of first.

There are, Aostre writes in Many Ways of Understanding and Educating Spirit, many ways we can think about spirituality. There's spirituality as meaning making , as self reflection, as mystical knowing, as emotion, as morality, as ecology, and spirituality as creativity. For example, spirituality as emotion is "a sense of wonder, awe, appreciation, and love for our universe and all creatures in it"; while spirituality as ecology means that "As a teacher, I can inspire kids to do things for the good of others, for the good of the earth". Isn't that neat, especially in a world obsessed by standards-based education?

As teachers of children we must inspire them through our spirituality, whichever form it might take, to seek knowledge and understanding of the world about them; to want to pursue their best selves, and to discover the joys of intrinsic learning. To read more by Professor Johnson see: Nurturing Child and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives from the World's Religious Traditions.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Santa, 12 Days and Fractals

Happy holidays to everyone and here's a seasonal piece of advice; take care when your daughter is around with her cellphone. The next thing you know is the entire world gets to see you looking like this. Actually I was quite flattered since it does seem to convey some Christmas spirit.

Talking of Christmas the 364 items in all the verses of the 12 Days of Christmas now cost almost $100,000 dollars, $96,824 to be precise. According to MSNBC only 4 of the items didn't go up this year but there was a 9.2% increase in the overall cost of the items over last year. Isn't it interesting that there are 364 items altogether; one short of the number of days in a year.

Also with a math theme is the little known area of study known as Fractal Geometry, the subject of an incredible Nova program on PBS last night featuring Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of the study of fractals. I first became aware of fracals several years ago when I was working with a High School student with cerebral palsy. He didn't like traditional mathematics very much but really developed an interest in the creative aspect of fractals.

Something I didn't realize before watching the Nova program is that fractal geometry is a way of making mathematical sense of the natural world such as mountains, leaves, clouds and all sorts of things. It is even being used in medical science to predict things like heart failure.

The Sierpinski Triangle is probably the easiest way to think about fractals which are basically the iteration of the same shape over and over again, in this case a triangle. Here are some Google Images of fractals, and a Yale site with lots of activities.

And who said mathematics cannot have an aesthetic quality? Happy holidays everyone. Tim

Monday, December 13, 2010

Portfolios and the Semester Ending

The end of another semester and the same bitter sweet feeling that always is present. Over 16 weeks a course becomes a really important learning community not only for the students but for me too. I don't think I have ever taught a course twice in the same way in all the years I've been teaching; there is always something that needs tweaking, something that can be improved and something that can be added or removed.

I've taught my Elementary School Math and Science course in one form or another for more years than I care to remember but each year something changes. Last year it was getting rid of the unbelievably expensive textbook and substituting a small but remarkable paperback book about teaching math as well as the extensive use of the Bridges Math Program, the one used in local schools.

I also finally ditched an activity in the science part of the course that had been really irking me for the past several years. I always do both a direct instruction as well as an inquiry based activity on teaching the students how to teach the reasons for the seasons to upper elementary students. The direct instruction activity involves me demonstrating with the use of a flashlight and a globe how the 23 or so degree tilt of the earth on its axis as it rotates around the sun gives use different seasons and temperatures. The activity demonstrates the idea of insolation really well. I sit in the middle of the room with the flashlight (sun) and the students pass the globe around the circle keeping the angle of tilt pointing at the same classrooom wall.

After I demonstrate it I have the students do a similar activity with a small flashlight and a balloon for the Earth. This year the students finally said that this activity confused them after the clarity of the direct instruction. I guess sometimes it is better to use direct instruction rather than an inquiry-based activity.

My Schools and Society course, which I taught for the first time at SMC this semester, will undergo significant changes for next term.

Today's picture is of some Portfolios from last year. This is the document all senior Education majors have to complete, as required by the Vermont State DOE to demonstrate their competence to teach. It is one of several assessment pieces we use to recommend students for licensure by the State of Vermont.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Being an American

The topic of my sophomore class today was an introduction to diversity in education. The students read several different chapters for homework that covered different aspects of diversity such as gender issues, English language learners, school choice issues and special education. The author of one of the chapters raised the issue of "celebrating diversity" in the context of students new to American classrooms; students who have come from different countries.

This is something we work with extensively in our teacher education programs at St. Mike's because many of the local schools in Winooski and Burlington where our students complete their classroom experiences have large numbers of students resettled from other parts if the world such as Sudan, Vietnam and Eastern Europe. It is also the topic of my professional research; at least the math education component is.

One of the issues the author of the chapter raised is that if we celebrate diversity in our classrooms where do children learn what it means to be American. The discussion was a lively one with one student saying that the American culture has always been in a state of change as people have arrived from different countries and cultures at different times in history. We also discussed how many other countries are approaching similar levels of diversity even in Europe where countries like France and Germany are questioning their national identity. Yet another point discussed was the role of families in the transmission of culture. We even wondered if the American culture was still typified by apple pies and Chevies!

As an immigrant myself, the issue of preserving and celebrating one's "own" cultural heritage as well as embracing the American culture is an interesting one. Over the past thirty years I have felt myself become a little more American and a little less British but never completely letting go of my cultural origins.

On Thursday we'll explore the other major part of diversity, the inclusion of students with special needs in public school classrooms.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Good Ending Means a Good Beginning

Every gardener knows that it's really important to tidy up the garden at the end of the season so that it's all ready for a good beginning in the Spring. Here's a video of the students in FY193 Digging Down to the Roots: The Meaning of Gardens working on the Teaching Gardens at SMC to get them ready for the winter. FY193, a first year seminar, is co-taught by Professors Valerie Bang-Jensen of the Education Department and Mark Lubkowitz of the Biology Department. The course, which is becoming very popular with students, introduces them to the science and pleasures associated with gardening as well gardening related nonfiction, fiction, essays, poetry, memoir, and relevant children's literature.

All the plants in the Garden are related to various pieces of children's literature and so students get to experience the books they read through the actual plants themselves as well as the words on the pages. My particular favorite is the extensive privet hedge which comes from the Harry Potter books.

One of the other tasks the students had to do was take inventory of the words in the Word Garden. Out of the 350 or so words in the Word Garden only four were missing, COW, PEACE, LEPRECHAUN and WOOD; a testimony to the wonderful spirit of the SMC community.

I always encourage my students to make a good ending to the semester so that they are ready for a good beginning to the next one. Good endings always make for good beginnings.